Filming at the Queen of Angels Monastery

In anticipation of the official dedication ceremony of a garden I recently designed for the Benedictine Sisters of Mt Angel, I spent a couple of hours with the wonderful crew of GardenTime – a local garden TV show here in the Pacific NW, filming a snippet about the newly installed garden. Of course, being calm and collected in front of a camera is hard when you’re me, who likes to gesture, point, and talk with my entire body. In short, I didn’t feel I really got to say everything I needed to say to explain my reasoning behind this project, nor did I have time for some relevant details. So, I figured I would document it all here, instead. When the segment airs in a couple of weeks, I will post it as I also do a report on the dedication ceremony. Hopefully it will all make more sense to you then.

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Jeff getting some garden shots, and Sister Jane.

We have this big tree, and we want a seating area somewhere near it. Can you help us?“, said a cheery voice on the phone. This was Sister Jane, who were to be my point person on the job, and with whom I hit it off famously. Turns out, she wasn’t kidding. The first thing you see when turning into the Monastery parking lot is this 130′ Sequoia dominating the landscape, and dwarfing everything else around it. It was planted by one of the very first Sisters in 1893. She found a seedling by the train tracks, and transplanted it. Not knowing what it was, she gave it a prime spot a little too close to the building, as time would eventually show. “This is the spiritual center of the Monastery”, said Sister Jane. I could feel it. Standing underneath that magnificent canopy made my toes tingle – it was indeed powerful!

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It’s a deeply spiritual experience to stand underneath the bows of this tree, looking up.

As it happened, there were a few more details that needed to be addressed when placing that “seating area”. The lawn to the north of the Sequoia was also home to an old bronze bell and a flagpole, which were to remain. I learned that the Sisters provide “spiritual walks” to the community, and that they also had a peace pole that needed to be placed. This garden, with the peace pole, was supposed to be an essential part of those walks.

As a result of that first visit, I wanted to put the peace pole underneath the tree. The trunk of the Sequoia was about 13′ in diameter, and had a bit of a divot in the perfect location. To my mind, that natural “alcove” would be the perfect place to house the peace pole. To get to it, there would be a board walk of sorts, floated above the uneven ground of the massive tree roots, for easy access for aging Sisters and their spiritual companions. I drew up plans with the board walk widening around the peace pole, showing a built-in seat right underneath the massive crown of the Sequoia. In that scenario, the peace pole would have been somewhat askew, but the seating area itself would have been right on axis with the bell and the flag pole “outside” on the lawn.  I say “outside”, because standing under the tree inspires the same awe as looking up into a cathedral spire – it transports you into a vortex of the mysteries of the universe –  a completely different world.

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” “Draw not nigh hither,” says the Lord to Moses; “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground”. (Exodus 3, 5)” (Quote copied from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and The Profane.)

In sorting out the more profane spatial organization outside of the sacred Sequoia, I was inspired by the idea of the spiritual walks. Since the beginning of time, labyrinths have symbolized a journey, a search for the meaning of life. Carefully inlaid mosaic labyrinths have adorned the floors of any cathedral with self respect, as a physical manifestation of our quest for the sacred, and for eternal answers. Of course, the roughly pie-shaped patch of lawn I had at my disposal didn’t quite have room for a labyrinth, nor was it really part of the scope of the project. (Besides, the Monastery already have a labyrinth, I later learned.) I moved on… Instead, I focused on using axes to tie the randomly placed elements that needed to be incorporated into the design. Obviously, the giant Sequoia provided me with the sacred, vertical axis – the spiritual, heavenly connection. Looking up at this massive tree, the baffled question I had blurted out when I first saw it still remained; “How the hell do you compete with something that BIG???”

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Here is the path layout, before it was seeded. 

Well, I went big, too. The pathways are 6′ across. Two main axes going north/south and east/west intersect right between the bell and the flagpole. In addition to the two main paths, there is a circular path connecting them, symbolizing the cosmos and the cyclical progression of time. As I was working on the layout of the paths, I realized what was happening… I was drawing a Benedictine cross! And there it was – the Sisters loved it! Outside of the circular path, are four 12′ x 40′ bermed beds, to be planted with mostly shrubs (for ease of care). It’s funny – after all the elements were in place, and the proportions looked right – looking at the plan, the size of the footprint of the garden is almost identical to that of the tree. I guess that’s what it took to not get completely lost in its shadow. After considering several other material options for the paths, we went for the beautiful simplicity of a gravel lawn. You can read more about that here, at Joy Creek’s blog. It’s a fabulous alternative, and works like a charm!

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Plants going in!

In the end, the Sisters decided against building the boardwalk. They just couldn’t justify the expense, not knowing how long they would remain at the Monastery. I guess this caution makes sense – their calling isn’t exactly popular with the younger generations, and they are going the way of the Shakers. (Hadn’t really thought of that conundrum before.) No matter. In the revised version, the Benedictine pathways remained. Instead of housing the peace pole, the drooping branches of the Sequoia now provides a backdrop to it. Where is the seating, you wonder? The Sisters restored a bench that had meaning to them, and its backrest fits perfectly against the old bell. From there, one looks straight at the peace pole against the towering Sequoia, and can meditate on its life-affirming message; May there be Peace on Earth.

Crossroads are important – the physical ones as well as the existential. We all come to them in the course of our lives. As a Swede, I feel like I can say that living in American society is damn hard. There are non-existent social safety nets, and people are constantly faced with the trauma of devastatingly hard choices like “Do I pay for surgery, or keep my home?” As part of these spiritual walks, the Sisters offer compassion, lend an ear, and give kindness to fellow humans in all kinds of despair and states of sorrow. Coming from a rather heathen background with very little tolerance for organized religions and their various dogmas, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the very important role they fill, in American society. I’ve always been a free-spirited being, consistently shying away from labels of one sort or another. I wondered why on earth they picked me to do this for them, but I’m so glad they did. I’m a spiritually richer person for having had the privilege to work with them.

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The grass in the gravel lawn grew in amazingly fast! And it’s completely solid under your feet.

So, what about the plants? The spiritual walks occur year round, so I decided I wanted to appeal to as many senses as possible. My rules were that there had to be something in flower at all times, something fragrant at all times, and flowers, fruits and berries to bring in insects and birds, and for additional year round interest. The Nuns had some rules too. Maintenance would be done by staff, but due to their many other duties, maintenance needs had to be minimal.

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Did a little inpromptu rose pruning while there today. William from GardenTime who knows a thing or two about roses, showed me a few tricks. The truck smelled really good on the way home. 

Working within the confines of Catholicism was so much fun! It’s a veritable treasure trove of symbols, liturgical traditions, and meanings. Purple is a hugely important color around Lent and Advent. White, red, green, black, rose, and gold are also prevalent. Blue is the color of the Madonna. I confess I didn’t manage to time the flowering times with the exact time of their importance. Instead, I chose plants that will move and change with the seasons. What will be purple, white, peachy rose, green, and black in summer, will change to golden yellow, orange, red, green and black in winter. Of course, there are lots of roses included, including the fabulous wing-thorn rose (Rosa pteracantha), Yuletide Camellia, various dogwoods with red/orange/yellow branches, various Mahonias, a Grevillea, Osmanthus ‘San José, Fatsia ‘Spiderweb’, Garrya elliptica, Daphne, Callicarpa dichotoma, Salix ‘Hakuro Nishiki’, Lespedeza thunbergii, various Hebes and hardy Fuchsias, Myrtis communis, Cupressus ‘Tiny Towers’, Miscanthus purpurescens, etc.  Of course there are some lilies – their symbolic weight was just too great to ignore. There are also some smaller grasses, Hellebores, purple Epimediums, white and peach Diascias, and purple Asters. The four center quadrants are planted with Black Scallop Ajuga with miniature blue-eyed tulips, butter yellow Hawera narcissi, and white Fritillarias emerging in spring. Will write a separate post on the plants at a different time as they fill in a little. Right now, many are rather small, and don’t really convey what they will eventually do. So, stand by on that one, please!

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The idea is that once the shrubs reach their maturity, the feeling of being in the circle will be that of standing in a large clearing, or outdoor room, surrounded by colors, textures, and fragrances. I didn’t draw it in, but the giant Sequoia is immediately to the right of the elevation, providing backdrop to the peace pole.

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Peace out!

 

 

 

 

About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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14 Responses to Filming at the Queen of Angels Monastery

  1. tonytomeo says:

    I never heard of ‘San Jose’ Osmanthus! Wow, that got my attention. Saint Joseph always carried that staff with lilies on it.

    • annamadeit says:

      Ooh, I missed that part. Well, I’ll be sure to add some extra lilies around it, for extra significance. Thank you for that tip! 😀

      • tonytomeo says:

        Oh, I did not mean to make a suggestion. I am no designer. It is doubtful that many would notice the significance anyway.
        A long time ago, particularly in societies where many people did not know how to read, pictures and statues of Saints were sometime distinguished by distinctive props. Saint Joseph’s common props, besides baby Jesus, were his carpenter’s square, and his staff with lilies. The popularity of roses around Hispanic parishes evolved from the roses of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, but not many young people or non Hispanic people know that.

        • annamadeit says:

          Oh no worries – I didn’t take it as a suggestion (nor would I have minded such a suggestion), but since I’m not a catholic, I just am not all that familiar with all the iconography. But, I LIKE the idea, so I will be sure to add some more lilies around San José next time bulbs become available. Maybe I’ll even wait until the baby white martagons I’m growing from seed grow up, and put some of those in there. They do better in shade, and the Osmanthus is in a rather shady spot, close to the Sequoia. So, thanks for the idea, Tony! I’m willing to bet the Sisters would know the story behind it. 🙂

  2. What a splendid achievement! The Benedictine Cross was surely inspired. (I am more comfortable behind the camera, too 🙂 )

    • annamadeit says:

      Thank you, Derrick! Yeah, I felt like that microphone was right in front of my nose. I bet I’ll look crosseyed in some of the footage – LOL!

  3. I enjoyed learning more about this project I’ve been hearing so much about. Nice work Anna!

  4. Kris P says:

    What an outstanding job you did, Anna! That tree is truly imposing and I’d have been hard-pressed to envision any way to address it but you did it! Kudos. I look forward to seeing the video clip and future photos as the plants grow up and out.

  5. This was wonderful in many ways. You did a great job with the garden and the post.

  6. Something in flower at all times, something fragrant at all times – this should be the first commandment of gardening! I enjoyed reading about this challenging project.

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